I’ve been putting off writing about the fire for a long time, not because it is too painful or anything, I’ve just put it behind me. Whenever I talk about it people get all sympathetic and are like, How horrible and I’m so sorry, but it’s no big deal. Really. Do you know why?
Because it was amazing.
My marriage flamed out in a big way in March of 2003. I was literally out on my ass with nowhere to go. I shacked up with Zeb because he helped get me in this mess and he actually wanted to take a stab at having a real relationship. I can only imagine the bets against us making it. I should have gotten a piece of that action because no one in their right mind would take those odds, including me.
Zeb was rock solid from the start, he even gave his third floor tenant the boot and remodeled the space for me. We finished it in August and I moved in, it was wonderful. I felt settled for the first time in over six months and happy for the first time in ages.
On November 19th my friend Eumy was in town and we talked about the nature of attachments and opportunity costs over dinner and bottle of wine, she was staying in my apartment. Thank God the fire happened during the day while she was out.
On November 20th I woke up, signed my final divorce papers and went to work with Zeb at the warehouse. Around 4pm he dropped me off at home on his way to the post office.
I noticed that the air smelled funny, like paraffin. I didn’t go upstairs because he was going to swing back around and get me. Instead I fed the fish and went to the bathroom. Then Peter* came barreling down the stairs yelling FIRE! I picked up the phone to dial 911 but it was already dead. I ran outside and there were people running towards me. I didn’t even take my purse.
*Peter: The most annoying housemate ever. We sometimes joked that it took a fire to get rid of him, and even then it was tough.
Outside I saw the couch on the second floor deck going up in flames. The fire didn’t seem that big. Could I make it up there to save my cats? I tried to call Zeb on someone’s phone but it was just like a nightmare, I couldn’t seem to dial it. Later Zeb told me that he got my call and heard me crying, “I can’t make it work!”
The firefighters got there quickly and set up. In minutes the couch fire turned into the deck collapsing and flames shooting out the third floor roof. All I could do was stand in the middle of the street and fall down, stand up, and fall down again. It was hours before the fire was put out. The firefighters brought out my sweet cat Lola, dead from smoke inhalation, and Yuki, old, decrepit and spitting mad. The ambulance driver was kind to take us to my veterinarian.
By the time I got home the house was a smoldering wreck that would continue to burn through the night.
I’m not going to get into what caused it because I don’t know. No one does, really. It was an accident. We had theories but that’s all they ever were. But this is true, I am not interested in assigning blame.
What matters is what came next. Losing Lola was crushing, she was such a darling little cat but we were grateful that no one else was hurt. Someone would have died for sure had the fire started at night. A local innkeeper put all six of us up at his B&B down the street rather than having us stay in some craptastic motel. It meant so much that we were all together. We would wake up in the middle of the night, disoriented, and were so relieved to find a kitchen to rattle around in. Thank you Bob.
I still mourn the loss of my cat but I stopped fretting about my lost stuff within a few days. Euphoria and lightness replaced loss and grief. There are times in your life when you have to choose the path to take. I had to choose between being angry or being peaceful. I chose peace.
I would think about something, realize it was gone, and release it. No agony, no struggle, just lightness. I miss feeling that way, of not being attached to anything. Apparently the universe wanted me to put my money where my mouth was, all that talk about attachments the night before.
Servicemaster came in to salvage what wasn’t destroyed. They trucked it off, cleaned and stored it until the house was ready to move back in, which took forever by the way. We moved into a tiny apartment down the street (generously provided by a kind neighbor) and started over with a duffle bag of clothes.
I had a check in my hand from the insurance company and set about buying all the things that I lost. I almost had a nervous breakdown at Bed, Bath & Beyond, kind of like the one I had on my first shopping trip when I moved to Boulder. Where do you start when you have nothing? I should have started by putting the money in the bank and seeing if I actually needed anything at all.
We rebuilt the house, argued with the insurance company, fired our contractor, but we got it done. I remember the day the Servicemaster returned my stuff. I thought, “Why on earth did I want them to save this crap?” Almost without exception I didn’t want anything that I had stored. My ex had saved a few boxes for me and I didn’t want those either.
I realized that starting over is a gift. Fire is violent and terrifying but it is also like being pushed off a diving board, you don’t have the luxury of endlessly turning over the pros and cons of keeping something or letting it go. You can either belly flop or tuck into a nice dive. It makes a difference when you hit the water.
I’m going to insert a few huge caveats here: we had insurance, we didn’t have kids, our fire wasn’t a part of a larger event that took entire neighborhoods. In that way we had a ton going for us. If our house had been destroyed and we didn’t have insurance or if there were hundreds of other people clamoring for contractors and permits, I doubt I would be quite so positive about the experience. Losing your house without financial means is a completely different ballgame that I am not qualified to speak about.
All that said, I look back onto that time as a gift. I achieved a lightness and freedom that I have never known and I am now trying to get back. Only now I must be intentional about it, going through my things methodically and asking myself if it is something I really want in my life. I can’t say the fire was easier, it wasn’t. But I had a lot of support and goodwill. Even my ex was nice to me for a whole week before he went back to being angry.
Zeb and I got to be together, really together, in a tiny apartment without the distractions of housemates and drama. It was a personal trial by fire for both us. When we emerged from it 13 months later, we were pregnant with our first child and moving into a renovated home suitable for our growing family. New electrical and plumbing was a huge plus given the advanced age of this old girl.
If I were ever to go through a fire again (please, no) I wouldn’t be so quick to replace the things I thought I needed because I had them before. I would enjoy the space for a good, long time. I would ask myself, Why am I buying this? Do I really need it? Or am I trying to deal with anxiety over my current situation?
Life is such a mystery. I don’t regret a thing, except that Zeb’s records hadn’t caught on fire. That would have been awesome.
I won’t regret getting rid of this crap.
Zeb complains about me putting the vacuum in this closet because it always falls and hits him in the nuts when he opens the door. Today I’m seeing what’s in there. Oh look. Another vacuum. Dig the vintage carpet.
A shitty vacuum and spare parts (all duplicates!) We’ll reunite the spare parts with the other Mighty Mights Zeb has in the garage (he has a major boner for them, apparently) and chuck the rest, including the vacuum.